KINGSPORT — Jeff Diehl remembers hitting his first walk-off home run when he was an elementary school kid.
He’ll probably remember his first professional game-winning shot at Hunter Wright Stadium.
The 19-year-old Rhode Islander led off the bottom of the ninth inning by crushing Gonzalo Sanudo’s hanging curveball, lifting the Kingsport Mets to a 3-2 Appalachian League victory over the Greeneville Astros on Tuesday night.
No sooner did Diehl make contact than he broke out into a broad grin and pointed to the left field wall. It was the third home run of his professional career.
“I knew it when it was going off the bat. When you hit one like that, you know it’s gone. Right off the bat, you feel it,” said the 6-foot-4, 195-pound first baseman, who struck out and twice grounded out to short in three previous plate appearances.
For K-Mets manager Jose Leger, the big deal wasn’t only giving the home fans a thrilling victory before a six-game road stretch. Diehl’s timely blast was a milestone in the young hitter’s development.
“Any time you get a walk-off home run, it’s a very exciting game. We’re very happy for Diehl. He’s been struggling with the breaking ball,” Leger said.
“It was a hanger and he took advantage of it. That’s a good break for him. Maybe now he can start recognizing more breaking balls. That was a good AB for him, all the way.”
Diehl’s solo homer placed the win on the shoulders of relief pitcher Ricardo Jacquez (1-0), offsetting the right-handed Texan’s first blown save of the season.
Jacquez came on with Kingsport leading 2-1 two outs into the eighth, inheriting two baserunners from Tyler Bashlor. Angel Ibanez singled to drive in the tying run before Jacquez coaxed a groundout from Brian Holberton.
The youngster issued a leadoff walk to Ariel Ovando in the ninth. After a sacrifice bunt by Jack Mayfield, Jacquez struck out Juan Santana and Brett Phillips, leaving Ovando stranded on second.
“After walking that guy in the ninth, he came through and struck out those other two guys with good pitches. He’s that type of pitcher. He lets it all out there,” Leger said.
The unsung hero was starter Robert Whalen, who scattered three Greeneville hits over six innings. Whalen, who struck out six, allowed one unearned run in the fourth gratis Amed Rosario’s fielding error at shortstop.
As fate would have it, that miscue followed three consecutive innings that featured spectacular plays by the Kingsport infield.
Second baseman Jeff McNeil made an acrobatic stop for his self-turned double play in the first inning. Kingsport turned a rare 3-6-1 double play in the second and Rosario robbed Ovando of a single with a diving catch in the third.
Michael Bernal went 2-for-3 with a second-inning RBI for the K-Mets. McNeil had a sacrifice fly in the fifth, plating Bernal.
Chase McDonald led the Astros, going 2-for-4.